I’ve been doing some interesting work on entrepreneurial ecosystems lately. I just published a paper in Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice on ecosystems (hint hint) but that was just the start. One of the points I made in that paper is that entrepreneurial ecosystems depend on more than just entrepreneurs. Look, entrepreneurs are the most important thing, but there are a bunch of other people that matter. Now, we know that angel investors are important and Kenney and Patton said that we should pay attention to folks like patent lawyers and accountants. Obviously you’ll want experienced, successful entrepreneurs who can serve as mentors for future generations of firm founders.
But I’ve been talking to a lot of entrepreneurs, policy makers, and other people in Edinburgh for the past month and from those conversations I think we need to think about a broader group of people that you need to make an effective ecosystem.
First of all is sales people. I think sales is the toughest nut for entrepreneurs to crack, especially entrepreneurs who see themselves as ‘technologists’ or ‘innovators’ rather than businesspeople. Heck, even businesspeople don’t think of themselves as sales people: how many business schools or MBA programs actually teach sales techniques? The answer is Not Many. How many books on entrepreneurship actually talk about sales beyond a very simple ‘it would be nice if you sold some stuff’?
But salespeople are very important for startups! Salespeople are typically the first employee at a startup that actually gets a real, competitive salary. They are instrumental in building connections with customers and landing the deals that actually pay for product development. But new entrepreneurs often have a lot of trouble working with sales people, they really don’t know how to pay them, how to measure their effectiveness, or how to help them do their job. And if I’d have to guess, I doubt there are a lot of salespeople who like working in the structureless environment of a startup.
And this is where the trouble starts: there’s been a 20 year debate in the academic research over if entrepreneurs are born or taught. The debate is still going on but there seems to be a consensus that we can at least try to instil an entrepreneurial mindset in people if we catch them early enough. There’s be no discussion about this for sales. There is the basic assumption that salespeople are born; they are born with an extroverted personality, slicked back hair, and the ability to give a sales pitch so meaningful people run from the room crying and you never look at a slide projector the same way. This may or may not be true: I hate talking to people yet during my PhD I learned how to make cold calls to entrepreneurs in order to sell them something they truly didn’t need — an hour of their time spent with me.
So we’re left in a situation where we assume that since we can’t teach sales entrepreneurs will just draw on what ever local talent exists and hope for the best. The problem is that there doesn’t appear to be an even distribution of sales talent. We’re lucky that the ONS’s Labour Force Survey provides detailed occupational data so we can actually see where specific types of salespeople are in the UK. The map below displays the location quotient (LQ) of sales professions: not telemarketers or retail salesclerks but Marketing and sales directors, Business sales executives, and Sales accounts and business development managers. These are high level salespeople and managers. LQs are a nice metric for this sort of thing since they show the ratio of a certain profession to all other professions while controlling for population and other factors: an LQ above 1 means that the concentration is higher than the national average and below 1 means it’s lower.
Not unexpectedly, London has a huge cluster of sales professionals: London is a global city filled with sales based companies, this is exactly where you’d expect them to be. But the map shows big problems for Northern England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. These places have almost half the national average of sales professionals. This means that when startups go looking for salespeople, they have a smaller pool to draw from. They’ll either have to pay more or get a lower quality worker. It means there’s a smaller support infrastructure for salespeople to build up their skills and learn how to manage other salespeople.
What does this tell us? Typical region policy to support entrepreneurship focuses on training entrepreneurs first, then trying to educate potential angel investors, and maybe they have a workforce development program to help train people in computer programming or whatever else it hot right now (is Internet of Things a job yet?) But no one is really thinking about (1) how can we train more and better salespeople and (2) how can we train entrepreneurs to be better at working with salespeople. Having a broader conception of who matters in entrepreneurial ecosystems makes it clear that this should be a priority.